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Mike Kafka, Dan Persa, Evan Watkins, and the Importance of an Experienced Backup QB

Did we have to see this too soon?
Did we have to see this too soon?

Tomorrow, we'll debut a certain series previewing Northwestern's 2011 football season position by position. In writing that post, I got thinking about an eerie similarity between the past three years.

Each year, since I arrived in Evanston, NU came in with an established starter: 2008, C.J. Bacher, 2009, Mike Kafka, 2010, Dan Persa. Over the course of the year, they established themselves as seemingly invaluable to the team's offense.

And late in the season, each quarterback got injured.

Twice, this was tolerable. Last year, it doomed the Cats.

2008: Record pre-injury to C.J. Bacher: 6-2 (counting the game in which Bacher got injured late in the fourth quarter)

When Mike Kafka took over for Bacher against Indiana, things looked really bad. He threw a pass backwards that ended up being recorded as a fumble for a loss of over 20 yards, and didn't get NU in scoring position when a field goal could've won. So the situation: Northwestern is coming off a loss to a dismal Indiana team - one BHGP says was one of the worst in recent Big Ten memory, per Pythagoras - and it turns out both starting quarterback Bacher AND primo running back Tyrell Sutton are injured. To top it off, next week, a ranked opponent in No. 17 Minnesota. Instead, the team totally eschewed the running game - only 12 carries for backup Omar Conteh - and let Mike Kafka do what he pleased. He ran the ball 27 times for a HOLY CRAP 217 yards, only throwing it 16 for a mere 143, but notching both of NU's offensive touchdowns through the air. Next week, NU got blown out by Ohio State, but that was to be expected.

With backup: 1-1, with one victory on the road vs. a ranked opponent and one loss to a heavily favored OSU squad.

2009: Record pre-injury to Mike Kafka: 5-3 (not including the loss to Penn State, which he played less than half of)

When Dan Persa took over for Kafka against No. 12 Penn State, things looked really bad. NU was still in the game, but didn't muster a single offensive touchdown with Persa at the helm, as he looked hesitant to throw but only averaged 3.0 yards per carry on the ground. However, the next week against No. 4 Iowa, when neither quarterback was fully healthy, Persa spelled Kafka masterfully: he led NU down the field with his feet, only to toss a 13-yard touchdown on his first pass. He led the team with 67 yards on the ground, made some big plays with his arm, and NU won 24-17.

With backup: 1-1, with one loss to a ranked Penn State team and one upset victory on the road against No. 4 Iowa.

2010: Record pre-injury to Dan Persa: 7-3 (including the victory over Iowa, which he played four quarters of)

When Dan Persa was injured against Iowa, things still seemed good in the world: next week was Wrigley week, and even if he got injured, he did it throwing a game-winning touchdown pass. Not so. An offense that had depended on Persa's legs and arm to create first downs sputtered under Evan Watkins and Kain Colter. NU only possessed the ball for 18:44 against Illinois, gave up 37 more first downs than they recorded over the season's final three weeks, and Colter and Watkins threw six interceptions after Persa had only thrown four in the season's first ten weeks.

With backup: 0-3, with two losses against beatable opponents in Illinois and Texas Tech.

So why the disparity?

Well, for starters, there's a pretty good chance this has to do with Kafka/Persa simply being better. To be honest, there might be little to this besides me pointing out "hey, the quarterback situation has run into pretty identical situations in weeks 8-10 of the past three seasons", which, to be honest, is interesting in its own right. Me trying to say anything more might be a stretch. (Consider this my disclaimer.)

Obviously, some of it has to do with differences in the teams: the 2008 team had a staunch defense - check Brendan Smith's pick six - and the 2009 team had a slightly better defense. And yeah, there's no evidence that Evan Watkins will ever be half the quarterback Persa and Kafka are. But let's think about the experience the players had going in.

Mike Kafka, Junior, career stats pre-entrance against Indiana: Four starts, eight games, 58-101, 1 TD, 5 INT's.

Dan Persa, RS Sophomore: 17 games, 1-2 passing, 1 TD, 11 rushing attempts

Evan Watkins: RS Freshman, three games, 3-7 passing

Kain Colter: True Freshman: Zero games.


You're probably thinking it seems silly to say that Persa and Kafka's experience - in both cases, three years in the program, as opposed to two for Watkins and one for Colter - is silly. Kafka hadn't started at QB in two years, Persa had only played mop-up duty and as an upback on kickoff returns. (The reason Persa played 11 games as a RS freshman is because he played upback duty all year long, except the game against Minnesota, when Fitz wouldn't let him, considering he was second-in-line to play quarterback.) This experience seems negligible and to bring it up seems pointless.

But the similarity between Kafka and Persa's rude entrances really catches my eye. Both were thrust into awkward situations and performed pretty poorly, and couldn't rescue NU in close games against Indiana or Penn State. The next week, they were as good as NU could have asked them to be. But neither made their living through the air: they picked their spots to throw - each lulled the defense into a sense of security with their legs only to bomb a touchdown pass over the defense's heads on their first drive. They ran, but controlled the game such that they sprinkled in a successful pass here or there.

Watkins, for lack of a better descriptor, was lost. He's not blessed with the same running skills, but he's got wheels for a 6-foot-6 guy, but we wouldn't have known. Instead, just a bevy of overthrows against Illinois, and he didn't have a chance against a swarming Wisconsin defense. Colter was effective with his legs, but didn't show the same skill passing the ball that Persa and Kafka - or even Watkins - did through the air.

Perhaps Colter and Watkins bloom. Perhaps they just don't have the same gifts their predecessors do. But the marked difference between Kafka/Persa game one and game two - and an even more marked difference between their sprinting, ill-at-ease to throw substitute roles and their more fully fledged starting roles as team-leading quarterbacks - suggests to me that we shouldn't rule out the young'uns. Of all the positions on the field, quarterback is the one that probably features the most potential for growth. Persa and Kafka had lots to learn, and did. So might they.

Looking at the stories of the past three years, I feel we can't undervalue the importance of an experienced backup. Now this year - his third year in the program, with three starts under his belt - he might be able to provide that.

Now let's just hope we don't have to find out like we have in the past three years.